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The Museum of Modern Love

August 10, 2017


Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, 2016, Winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

You’re a successful artist, happily married to a woman you love. You don’t have the same need for people as your wife does, and she organises a life around both of you. Then she suffers brain damage from a blood disorder, and is moved to a nursing home, incapacitated physically and mentally. And you discover that she has taken out a court order that, in the event of such incapacity, forbids you from seeing her. You descend into a sort of hell.


This is the fate of Arky Levin, film score composer, the main fictional character in Heather Rose’s novel, The Museum of Modern Love. The main real character is performance artist Marina Abramović. The novel circles around these two people as it progresses. Will Levin sit with her? And if he does, what will happen?

In 2010, Abramović performed The Artist is Present, sitting for 75 days in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while visitors queued to sit opposite her and silently gaze into her eyes. Some visitors sat for two minutes, others for two hours – or all day. If the visitor cried, so did Abramović. Other visitors watched from behind a square around the performance marked by tape.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present

Photo: Andrew Russeth, Flickr CC Licence

Visiting MoMA, Levin is drawn to Abramović’s performance, and starts coming most days to watch it. Watching with him is a rich cast: fictional characters such as art teacher Jane, grieving for her husband, and Brittika, who is driven to know more than other people and is writing her PhD thesis on Abramović. Also at the performance are real characters such as Abramović’s photographer, the ghost of her mother, and the novelist Colm Toibin, who wrote of his experience:

‘It was like being brought into a room in Enniscorthy when I was a child on the day after a neighbour had died and being allowed to look at the corpse’s face. … This was serious, too serious maybe, too intimate, too searching. It was either, I felt, what I should do all the time, or what I should never do.’

Many of these characters, fictional and real, are changed by sitting with Abramović or watching the performance. How does such art change people?

Much of Abramović’s previous art is dramatic and dangerous and makes ideological statements as well as artistic ones. It is art to “wake you up.” But for The Artist is Present she refines her art, simplifies it, until “all that’s left is energy”. When sitters lock eyes with Abramović, does that energy cause people to see themselves as they really are? Or look at their life in a different way? Or feel something that was previously invisible to them?

Throughout the novel the power of art interweaves with the power of love. Talking to Levin about his wife, a close friend of them both gives him a little poem:

Even after all this time, the sun never says, “You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole world.

Heather Rose

Heather Rose (Photo: Allen & Unwin website, downloadable)

Are there times when one must choose between art and love? Or are they, at their deepest level, the same?

This is a beautiful novel. Heather Rose writes like an angel, and in fact an angel (or good spirit/muse) narrates much of the story – a risky device, but it is the exact omniscient voice this tale requires. The Museum of Modern Love is one of the most affecting books I have read. The final few paragraphs are profoundly moving, and they constitute a perfect ending to the novel.

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